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Mark Shenton’s top 50 musical theatre songs: 10 to 1

Jake Gyllenhaal in Sunday in the Park with George, Rosalie Craig in Company and Leslie Odom Jr in Hamilton. Photos: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg and Matthew Murphy

Here it is: the top 10. Broadway critic and resident musical theatre expert Mark Shenton selects his favourite songs in the history of musical theatre. Andrew Lloyd Webber features, as does Stephen Sondheim. But who is number one? Shenton has only considered songs specifically written for musical theatre productions and only listed one song per musical. This is an inevitably subjective selection, but please list your own favourites in the comments below.

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10. Someone in a Tree from Pacific Overtures

Broadway, 1976 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)

Why I love it: An indirect precursor to Hamilton’s The Room Where It Happens, Someone in a Tree is also concerned with different points of view of an important historical event, in this case a meeting between the US and Japan in 1853 that led to the latter’s westernisation. This great Sondheim song forcefully shows that the narrative all depends on where you are watching it unfold.

Notable performances: I saw this show improbably receive its UK premiere at a council-run theatre in a sports centre in Wythenshawe, Manchester in 1986. It has also been seen in the UK at Leicester Haymarket, London Coliseum (produced by English National Opera) and the Donmar Warehouse (in a transfer for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production).

YouTube: A concert performance at Lincoln Center in 2015, performed by George Lee Andrews, Kate Baldwin, Michael Cerveris, and Alexander Gemignani:

 

9. The Room Where It Happens from Hamilton

Broadway 2015 (music and lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda)

Why I love it: The groundbreaking Hamilton [1] is the most influential musical of the century so far, re-imagining the musical’s capacity for telling stories in new and invigorating ways, in this case reclaiming the story of the US’s founding fathers through a rap and rock-based score performed by a fully integrated cast. The Room Where It Happens is a stirring account of the malleability of historical narrative.

Notable performances: The role of Aaron Burr was originated on Broadway by Leslie Odom Jr in a Tony winning, star-making performance.

YouTube: Odom sings the song at a festival:

 

8. Gethsemane from Jesus Christ Superstar

Broadway 1971 (music: Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics: Tim Rice)

Why I love it: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s second musical (after the jaunty, cartoon-like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) was a much more serious biblical musical, and remains the most powerful and individual of all Lloyd Webber’s scores. Gethsemane is an outright thrilling rock number, full of driving passion and feeling.

Notable performances: Steve Balsamo’s searing vocals in the 1996 West End revival at the Lyceum are absolutely indelible. I’ve never heard it sung better before or since.

YouTube: Balsamo reprises the role in a production in the Netherlands in 2004:

 

7. My Time of Day/I’ve Never Been in Love Before from Guys and Dolls

Broadway 1950 (music and lyrics: Frank Loesser)

Why I Love it: Guys and Dolls is unquestionably my favourite of any musical [2]; there isn’t a dud in the entire thrilling score, but My Time of Day – a perfect meditation on the stillness of the night – segues effortlessly into I’ve Never Been in Love Before in which Sister Sarah acknowledges her unexpected and growing attraction to Sky Masterson.

Notable performances: The best Guys and Dolls I ever saw was the National’s now legendary 1982 production that featured Julie Covington and the late Ian Charleson as Sister Sarah Brown and Sky Masterson respectively, with the late Bob Hoskins as Nathan Detroit and the great Julia McKenzie as Miss Adelaide. The 2005 Donmar Warehouse revival, produced directly into the West End at the Piccadilly, starred Jenna Russell and Ewan McGregor as Sarah and Sky.

YouTube audio: Jenna Russell and Ewan McGregor:

 

6. The Rhythm of Life from Sweet Charity

Broadway, 1966 (music: Cy Coleman, lyrics: Dorothy Fields)

Why I love it: This exhilarating song pulses with religious fervour and rhythm, a church spiritual sung by a preacher at an alternative church being visited by the show’s two leads.

Notable performances: In the 1969 film version of Sweet Charity, the role of Daddy Brubeck, who sings this song, was indelibly performed by Sammy Davis Jr, with thrilling choreography by Bob Fosse (who also directed the film).

YouTube: from the film:

 

5. I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady

Broadway, 1956 (music: Frederick Loewe, lyrics: Alan Jay Lerner)

Why I love it: Lerner and Loewe’s evergreen score is one of the richest in the history of musicals, bursting with melody and dramaturgically improving on its source material, Shaw’s Pygmalion, which now seems diminished by the absence of songs. Best of a glorious bunch is the effervescent I Could Have Danced All Night, a song that makes you want to sing all night.

Notable performances: The original stage Eliza Doolittle was the glorious Julie Andrews, who created the role on Broadway in 1956 before reprising it at Drury Lane in 1958. For the 1964 film, she was replaced by Audrey Hepburn – who couldn’t sing it, so her singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon. In 2001 Martine McCutcheon played the role, at some performances only, at the National – her two understudies performed it more often than she did, but she nonetheless won an Olivier award.

YouTube: Audra McDonald, in my view, the single greatest operatic soprano in musical theatre today, offers a beautiful version filmed on a cruise ship in 2010, accompanied by Seth Rudetsky:

 

4. What’s the Use of Wond’rin’ from Carousel

Broadway, 1945 (music: Richard Rodgers, lyrics: Oscar Hammerstein II)

Why I love it: Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second show after their groundbreaking Oklahoma!, spawned numerous standards, including You’ll Never Walk Alone (now one of the most famous songs on the football field), June Is Bustin’ Out All Over and If I Loved You. But the most moving song of all is What’s the Use of Wond’rin, about being powerless to avoid a dysfunctional relationship.

Notable performances: The most heartbreaking Julie I’ve ever seen was Joanna Riding in the National’s 1992 revival, which won her an Olivier Award. The role was most recently played on Broadway by Jessie Mueller in a production that has just closed.

YouTube: The great Broadway soprano Kelli O’Hara:

 

3. Finishing the Hat from Sunday in the Park With George

Broadway, 1984 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)

Why I love it: No song encapsulates the artistic drive and the overwhelming need to create art better than Finishing the Hat, a scorching testament to the power of creativity that is at once haunting and shattering. Also truly beautiful in this score is Move On, another song about artistic struggle.

Notable performances: The title role was originated by Mandy Patinkin, first at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons in 1983 before moving to Broadway in 1984. In the show’s London premiere at the National Theatre in 1990 the role was played by the great Philip Quast; and in the Menier Chocolate Factory production in 2005 by Daniel Evans, which subsequently transferred to both the West End and Broadway. In 2017 Jake Gyllenhaal starred in another Broadway revival based on a concert version presented in New York the previous year.

YouTube: Jake Gyllenhaal in a promotional video shot during rehearsals for the last Broadway production:

 

2. Being Alive from Company

Broadway, 1970 (music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim)

Why I love it: Nobody does emotional yearning with such piercing longing as Stephen Sondheim and there’s no greater celebration of finding sheer life force out of darkness than Being Alive, in which a long-time relationship avoider decides to finally surrender themselves to another person.

Notable performances: The role of Bobby, the determined bachelor, was originated on Broadway by Dean Jones, but was soon replaced by Larry Kert (West Side Story’s original Tony), who subsequently reprised it in the show’s West End transfer to Her Majesty’s. A London revival at the Donmar Warehouse in 1996, which starred Adrian Lester as Bobby, subsequently transferred to the Albery. It has been revived again this year at the Gielgud featuring Rosalie Craig as Bobbie, in a new production transposing the gender of some of its characters.

Read our review of Company with Rosalie Craig here [3]

YouTube: Adrian Lester at the Donmar Warehouse:

 

1. Corner of the Sky from Pippin

Broadway 1972 (music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz)

Why I love it: Underlining the fact that this is a necessarily subjective list, Corner of the Sky has long been my absolutely favourite musical theatre song: an intimate song sung by a man trying to find purpose in his life and being urged by the demons in his head to kill himself. It is the most arresting, disturbing yet ultimately hopeful distillation of depression in musical form that I know.

Notable performances: Originally sung by John Rubinstein on Broadway in 1972 (who would later go on to play Pippin’s father in the brilliant 2013 revival of the show), I first heard it sung live brilliantly when I was a teenager in the show’s South African premiere in Johannesburg by a US actor called Hal Watters.

YouTube: Hal Watters in South Africa cast recording, 1975

Listen to the playlist on Spotify: